Why I don’t blame poverty for causing crime

By   /   May 12, 2017  /   22 Comments

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I disagree with many people on the left who blame crime on poverty. I believe it is a product of the breakdown in human solidarity. Sometimes that is associated with periods of social crisis, unemployment and poverty – but not always. And it is not a simple matter of cause and effect.

I disagree with many people on the left who blame crime on poverty.

I believe it is a product of the breakdown in human solidarity. Sometimes that is associated with periods of social crisis, unemployment and poverty – but not always. And it is not a simple matter of cause and effect.

One of the problems of associating crime and poverty is that by definition criminality is associated with being poor. Working people are deemed more likely to exhibit criminal tendencies.

If we can identify “criminal” markers in our makeup then we can start “targeting” likely criminals before they are even born. This seems to be part of the thinking behind the government’s approach to social spending.

The problem here is that much criminal behaviour in society is not even categorised as such. Wage theft by employers, for example, is not usually dealt with as a crime. “Theft as a servant”, a term used for workers taking something that belongs to the boss, however, is a crime.

“White collar crime”, including tax evasion, fraud (except benefit fraud) are treated radically differently to often petty criminal activities associated with working people.

For most of humanity’s existence, we lived in relatively poor hunter-gatherer families or clans. Life was egalitarian. Values associated with sharing and cooperation dominated. Conflicts were mediated. There were no police or prisons.

Class societies by their essence we based on violence and dispossession. Serfs and slaves were treated as barely human. The class of owners could inflict whatever cruelty they considered appropriate on someone below them in the pecking order.

Dehumanising “the other” is necessary to be able to justify the injustices that could be perpetrated. Slavery, with its millions of victims, could not exist if African people were considered equal in any way. The Nazi regime made an art of dehumanising Jews, Slavs, Gypsies, Gays before sending them to the camps.

This has reached its pinnacle in the modern imperialist era when whole people’s could be incinerated in concentration camp ovens or firestorms created by conventional (Dresden, Hamburg, Tokyo) or atomic (Hiroshima, Nagasaki) bombing. Millions more were slaughtered in Vietnam, Korea, Congo, Angola, Iraq, Syria, Yemen to name a few of the countries who have had war imposed on them by the wealthy Western countries keen to maintain the extraction of their labour and natural resources.

During periods when human solidarity was valued and promoted crime and associated social disorders declined rapidly. It is no accident that this is true of popular struggles and revolutions in the modern era as well. I saw this for myself in one of the barrios of Caracas in Venezuela where the people rose up and drove the police and the criminal gangs (who worked together) out of their neighbourhoods created a people’s militia to keep order. We walked the streets at night in relative safety – certainly compared to many other suburbs yet to be liberated.

I believe there was an increase in some forms of criminal behaviour affecting working class communities in this country in the 1980s. People began to prey on each other. Robbery, burglary and violence escalated. Again I will leave aside the fact during that same period the life savings of tens of thousands of people was looted by out of control financial speculators who were almost never prosecuted and never went to jail. In fact, the government would often rescue them through a bailout of one kind or another.

I am convinced the petty criminality that grew in working-class communities was associated with the defeats working people suffered as a consequence of the devastating recession in the late 1980s and early 1990s with its associated mass unemployment. Unions were smashed. Wages and working conditions were driven backwards.

An evil ideological campaign celebrating competition and selfishness was unleashed. “Greed is Good” became the neo-liberal mantra. Social solidarity broke down. Looking at one’s workmate or neighbour as a competitor rather than a colleague or comrade became more common. Lashing out in anger, depression and drug abuse rather than organising together to overcome the obstacles we face became normalised to a degree.

Poverty, of course, also grew as an associated but not directly causal factor.

This explanation for the roots of petty criminal behaviour within working class communities also explains why the methods of punishment being imposed today are counterproductive. Ending criminal behaviour occurs when people come to discover their own humanity and self-worth and no longer see other people as less worthy in some way. This begins with dealing with addiction and other health issues. It requires the chance to overcome illiteracy and gain further education. Training in trades and other employment skills provided. It means maintaining links with family. It means having housing and jobs available when you leave a prison. The vengeful punishment promoted by the likes of the Sensible Sentencing Trust who prey on crime victims vulnerability like some sort of parasite will only achieve the opposite of what the claim to want.

I do not believe it is human nature to be greedy and selfish. Science backs that assertion up. There are many studies have found that we are naturally altruistic in our basic responses. Cooperation made us human. We can regain that humanity in a society based on equality and cooperation. We can then banish all selfishness, bigotry, racism, misogynism, violence and greed to become part of the dark past in humanity’s quest for true liberation. 

 

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About the author

Mike Treen

National Director of Unite Union

22 Comments

  1. David Stone says:

    Pretty optimistic Mike
    I totally agree that it is not poverty per se that encourages people to crime but rather imposed poverty amid plenty and amid excess.
    A sizeable part of our population is shut out of being allowed to participate.
    D J S

  2. Mike in Auckland says:

    “Dehumanising “the other” is necessary to be able to justify the injustices that could be perpetrated. Slavery, with its millions of victims, could not exist if African people were considered equal in any way. The Nazi regime made an art of dehumanising Jews, Slavs, Gypsies, Gays before sending them to the camps.”

    Yes, that is of course true, and it has happened in many societies throughout the ages, with more or less severe class structures. It happens in the form of racism, other forms of discrimination, of stignatisation of poor and less educated, and so forth. Populists and opportunist politicians do of course know how to exploit prejudice and fear, and manipulate people to act in ways that they want them to.

    But in regards to crime, as far as I have heard and read, most crimes are being committed by a small minority of repeat offenders. They may be coming from poorer backgrounds but not always so, and while some may steal or rob for desperation about their socio-economic situation, to get what they need, others may become some form of career criminal.

    Yet some crimes are simply crimes of passion, committed while in poor mental states, e.g. when under the influence of alcohol or illegal drugs, or due to addiction forcing people to make money in whatever way to get more of the stuff they feel they need.

    Crime is therefore not always equal to the common concept of “crime”, there are many types of criminal behaviour, or anti social behaviour, and as Mike Treen points out, some behaviour like tax dodging of business people is often treated in a cavalier fashion, while a person taking something from the work place is treated comparatively harshly, let along a “benefit fraudster” of sorts.

    The government we have likes to circle in on “targets”, to play a very sophisticated kind of ‘blame game’, hence their new ‘investment approach’ targeting the “issues” before they get out of hand. So they want to gather data on every one of us, especially those on benefits and with certain health and social problems.

    By doing this they create exactly that kind of environment, where “ordinary” people will do all to cooperate and avoid showing any “risk behaviour”, and hide some if they can. Some will also feel inclined on reformulating traditional discrimination into newly worded discrimination, by looking down on those with “special needs”.

    Instead of talking about “social failures”, “crims” and so, the future down putting language will revolve on “special needs persons”, meaning exactly the same as what the old words or terms used to mean.

    We will thus get no progress, only a more controlled society, where people will do all to stay underground or go underground, as some forced off benefits do now.

    In a society that talks about “support”, about “breaking free from dependence” and “enabling” people, but still gathers data on certain persons and isolates them as having “special needs”, we will continue to have discrimination.

    Rehabilitation of people that have served prison terms can only happen and function if society is willing to give such persons an honest chance. I observe quite the opposite though, where neighbours get together to stop Corrections placing certain persons that are released back into society in their direct neighbourhood. The ‘Sensible Sentencing Trust’ would like more open forums that would allow such people to look up and see what persons committed what kind of anti social crimes in the past. Add Family First and so, and you have a continuation of the stuff we have had for decades, the blame game, labeling and endless stigmatisation and with hunts, and we get NO rehabilitation of significance, welcome to NZ Inc. 2017.

    So let is see some real solutions, please, and I consider that poverty does increase the risk of illegal behaviour, as this kind of system simply makes it impossible for some people to get rehabilitated, to get a new chance for a new life. The only way society seems to give them a chance is by expecting total humiliation and shame, which I find hardly empowering or enabling, it is extremely negative.

    • Jono says:

      I can only see a fight back from those at the bottom. Those that have been forced as it were underground. These people if band together could be quite a force especially if you add in the poor who are also forced off the grid. Probably civil unrest. I wonder if our current government would be ready if something like this happened???

      • Strypey says:

        The challenge is how to respond when the establishment sends in the goons to scatter us and “restore order”, or more commonly since Occupy, use a cunning strategy of drawing us into unwinnable, exhausting situations and then smashing us with carefully prepared PR. I’m thinking of the way the bank management, cops, security guards and corporate media worked together to blunt the effectiveness of our climate change action blockading ANZ branches last year. How can we construct protest situations in such a way that they become more effective, and more fun, as more effort is made to shut them down or discredit them, and leave us invigorated and ready for more, instead of exhausted and disillusioned?

  3. Mike in Auckland says:

    “I do not believe it is human nature to be greedy and selfish. Science backs that assertion up. There are many studies have found that we are naturally altruistic in our basic responses. Cooperation made us human.”

    I would generally tend to agree. The information gathering obsession of this control freak government we now have, that replaced a so called “nanny state” with “Big Brother State”, does seem to suggest, the government has another view. They seem to believe that some people are born with traits that will very likely turn them into anti social and criminal persons.

    Why was NZ once hailed as a low crime society, where you could leave your doors unlocked, and come back home, while nobody would have broken in and stole a thing? What has led to the change to what we have now, and have had for some other periods over recent decades?

    What is different now, when compared to those times?

  4. Historian pete says:

    If you read James Peggetty,Capitalism in the Twenty First Century ,You will see that his central thesis,proven by data and graphic representations,is that by 2030 inequality in Western nations will reach the level of pre revolutionary France. It is indemic in the DNA of Capitalism that this will occur.It doesnt really matter about Macron, Trump, Hillary,Blair,May, Merkel, and the other figure heads of the deep state U.S. Empire/ Nato/I.M.F./ European Union.Throughout History people who have grasped power always, without exception, have attempted to maximize their wealth and power.One billion is never enough.Fifty billion is never enough. It is up to us to remove from their cold dead hands the means of production, distribution and exchange for the betterment of all society.Anyone have a second hand guillotine handy?!

  5. Jen says:

    This is why building grass/flax roots solidarity is so important. It gives people the experience of a co-operative way of doing things, a different way from the individualistic and competitive way of life that most of us are forced to engage with in our daily lives. That feeling of support that we get from our comrades is vital to keep us going and for a lot of people, they just don’t know what that’s like.
    I too believe that society can be better and it’s up to is, in our own communities, to promote a positive alternative and give people a taste of what that better society might be like.

  6. Mike in Auckland says:

    Quote: “Again I will leave aside the fact during that same period the lifes savings of tens of thousands of people was looted by by out of control financial speculators who were almost never prosecuted and never went to jail.”

    Oh, one Mr John Key comes to mind, thinking of the late 1980s:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Key

    “Before politics”

    “Key’s first job was in 1982, as an auditor at McCulloch Menzies, and he then moved to be a project manager at Christchurch-based clothing manufacturer Lane Walker Rudkin for two years.[15] Key began working as a foreign exchange dealer at Elders Finance in Wellington, and rose to the position of head foreign exchange trader two years later,[16] then moved to Auckland-based Bankers Trust in 1988.[5]

    In 1995, he joined Merrill Lynch as head of Asian foreign exchange in Singapore. That same year he was promoted to Merrill’s global head of foreign exchange, based in London, where he may have earned around US$2.25 million a year including bonuses, which is about NZ$5 million at 2001 exchange rates.[5][17] Some co-workers called him “the smiling assassin” for maintaining his usual cheerfulness while sacking dozens (some say hundreds) of staff after heavy losses from the 1998 Russian financial crisis.[6][17] He was a member of the Foreign Exchange Committee of the New York Federal Reserve Bank from 1999 to 2001.[18]”

    Last I heard of that guy, he was even ‘Prime Minister’ of sorts in a little country down in the South Pacific, now often considered part of ‘Australasia’.

  7. francesca says:

    Absolutely on the nail Mike Treen
    I don’t think I’ve ever read a more convincing explanation
    Its why we no longer have a passionate popular defense of the commons,why there is no longer a mass resistance to war and imperialism(as there was in the 60s and 70s)
    I always enjoyed your appearances on 5th Estate, especially when you declared you wouldnt be celebrating a US warship in Auckland harbour when it was being touted by others of the “left” as somehow a victory

  8. Mike the Lefty says:

    I agree with you to a certain extent.
    Historically, there has been a link between poverty and crime but in the technological age that link is not as strong or relevant.
    Useful to remind everyone that the worst crooks in the world, not just New Zealand, are not poor people, they are stinking rich bastards.
    I still believe that Rogernomics had a much bigger effect on New Zealand than we have recognised to date. Rogernomics began the transformation of our society from a values based society to a price based society.
    The break up of the family unit accelerated as people were pressured to work longer hours, work weekends and holidays and children were basically brought up by grandparents and/or television.
    The criminals that did this have not been brought to justice, instead many of them have been given queen’s honours whilst they wing their way around the world’s holiday hot spots and receiving triple the average wage, all at our expense.
    Only a genuine revolution can fix this country and its probably never going to happen, unfortunately.

  9. Siobhan says:

    …not to mention what would normally, in a decent society, be considered Criminal behaviour and tendencies are considered desirable and are well rewarded amongst certain classes and occupations.

  10. Andrew says:

    You’re almost right Mike.

    Poverty isn’t the sole driver in crime, otherwise all poor people would be criminals.

    There is, however, ample evidence to show that absentee fathers have a massive influence on criminality. Boys born to solo mums are far more likely to:

    Be abused by live-in boyfriends and relatives
    Be depressed
    Attempt suicide
    Join a gang
    End up in prison.

    It is sadly ironic that despite its best original intentions, DPB became a cause of intergenerational criminality.

    Who’d have thought the road to hell is paved with good intentions eh?

    • So what would be your alternative to the DPB, Andrew?

      For example, how would you support a woman and her three sons (the youngest only 18 months old), who has been left literally holding the baby as her husband walked out on her and shacked up with an office colleague he’d been having an affair with?

      Put the children into forced adoption? Execute the children?

      How would you support a woman looking after her kids after escaping from a father who was a drunk, abusive, and bashed her and the eldest child after turning home intoxicated?

      Both of those are real instances, Andrew. I’d like to know your solution.

      Because here’s the thing with DPB-critics like you, Andrew; the fathers (generally) bugger off, leaving the woman to (generally) look after and raise the children. So it’s the woman who is showing responsibility in caring for the kids. Yet you dismiss their heroic actions with little thought. Becvause here’s the thing, Andrew; you criticise solo-mums who bear the responsibility of raising their children, single-handedly…

      But you never mentioned solo-fathers.

      As for your assertion that

      “Boys born to solo mums are far more likely to:

      Be abused by live-in boyfriends and relatives
      Be depressed
      Attempt suicide
      Join a gang
      End up in prison.”

      – do you have any evidence for that, or are you basing it on your own prejudice?

      Anyway, let us know what you’d replace the DPB with. I’m really curious to know.

    • Mike in Auckland says:

      Andrew, with such bold claims, I would have expected some linked evidence for this, but you do another troll like hit and run, I note.

    • Andrea says:

      Twentieth century. Two ‘world wars’. Lots of widows – with sons.

      Some chose to be crims. Most did not.

      What’s missing now? Not the dads, though that would be nice.

      Work.

      Work that means something more than just pay. Good mates. Challenges. Pride in accomplishment and working for something bigger than self. Decent world-class training. Opportunities for advancement.

      They weren’t ‘good days’. There was a lot that wasn’t ‘nice’ – but there was work that was honest, the chance of a home and family, a bit of standing, a local ‘community’ that wasn’t splattered by long commutes and status symbols.

      And we let it lapse because of all sorts of cultural cringe reasons.

      Those days won’t come again – but it would be unwise to ‘blame poverty’. Too many decent folks endured poverty at least as bad and still brought up their kids to be decent citizens with a good code to live by and a striving for knowledge.

      Thanks Mike Treen. Keep swimming against the lazy platitudes.

  11. Ras Gonzo says:

    I got a raw deal
    So I’m looking for a steal.

    Babylon always this way, make you insane, make you sin.

  12. Jack Ramaka says:

    Lower socio economic groups do crime purely to survive, if they need money for food they will steal it or deal drugs , it is a basic human survival instinct.

  13. Jack Ramaka says:

    Lower socio economic groups do crime purely to survive, if they need money for food they will steal it or deal drugs , it is a basic human survival instinct.